What do you cite? Using references strategically [7/8]

Shows you how references can save you hundreds of words and position your paper

You've polished your title, abstract, introduction and conclusion. Time to submit? Well, not quite. Before you do so, take another critical look at the references you use in your paper. Of course 95% of your references are simply there to support your arguments on a sentence-by-sentence level. This is what Mandard calls epistemic or rhetorical referencing.

The only thing you need to decide there is how many references is enough. However, you can also use references more strategically and that's what this post is about.

How to use references strategically?

There are three key ways to use references strategically: to set the scene for your paper in its introduction, to reference relevant publications by the editor and reviewers, and to reference core theoretical and methodological publications to signal which conversations you are participating in. This is what Mandard calls symbolic and economic referencing.

Setting the scene

In the introduction cite a few key and recent publications in the journal you submit to. Mind you, I am not asking you to comply with the dodgy practices of less salubrious journals that ask you to cite papers published in the last two years to boost their journal impact factor. However, by submitting to a journal you indicate you want to be part of the conversation; citing other articles in the journal is simply a way to acknowledge your conversation partners.

But do this only when the references are intrinsically important, i.e. they have an epistemic or rhetorical value too. Editors are not stupid, they can spot it easily if you have just added references to their journal last minute, maybe after having been rejected at your preferred journal. So:

  • Don’t just cite ANY paper in the journal, but...
  • Don’t NOT cite any paper in the journal

If you really can't find any relevant articles in the journal to cite, you might need to reconsider your target journal. To find relevant articles simply do a pre-submission check with Publish or Perish. Here is an example of how you can do this, searching for articles published on language in the Journal of World Business since 2010.

Reference the editor and reviewers

Second, make sure you reference key publications by the editor and likely reviewers (see also Why do I need to write a letter to the editor?). This is what Mandard calls economic referencing. Again, I am not suggesting you do this to "flatter" or "bribe" the editor or reviewers, your references still need to have an epistemic or rhetorical value too.

However, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you have written some pretty seminal work on a particular topic and are asked to be acting editor or reviewer for an article in which the author hasn't acknowledged any of your work. You are not going to be pleased are you?

So look up the editor and likely reviewers with Publish or Perish and read up on their relevant work if you haven't cited it yet. However, don't just "slip in" some references to people you think might be your reviewers by adding them to a block of other references unless they are really relevant. I have lost count of the number of times a reference to my work really had nothing to do with the content (see Are referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?).

Reference core methodological and theoretical publications

In your methods section use references that align with your research philosophy. Every research method has its own core authors (e.g. Miles & Huberman for qualitative data analysis). This is what Mandard calls symbolic referencing.

In your literature review section, reference core theoretical publications (e.g. Bourdieu for social capital, Tajfel & Turner for social identity theory). Used like this references are “signposts”, signals that you are part of the same conversation and shortcuts that can save you hundreds of words. 

Want to know more about referencing?

I can highly recommend this article by Matthieu Mansard in European Management Review, who distinguishes four key motives of referencing: epistemic, rhetoric, symbolic, and economic.

  • Mandard, M (2021). On the shoulders of giants? Motives to cite in management research. European Management Review, DOI: abs/10.1111/emre.12495

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